The US has had a federal air marshal program for decades, since long before 9/11. Nowadays this is under the supervision of the Transportation Security Administration, and the program has an annual budget of nearly a billion dollars.
The federal air marshal program doesn’t have much to show for their work, as they’ve never actively stopped anything. There have, however, been many incidents involving air marshals, where they leave guns behind, or air marshals themselves get arrested.
I’ve had my fair share of interactions with air marshals over the years, including once being interrogated by them back when I was a teenager. Generally my assumption has been that they’re being assigned flights based on routes that are considered higher risk. For example, back in the day every flight to/from Washington Reagan Airport would have air marshals, though I don’t believe that’s the case anymore.
As it turns out, air marshals are doing a lot more than that, and it’s actually sort of creepy.
The Boston Globe has a story about how Federal Air Marshals have what’s called the “Quiet Skies” program, where they’re tracking an average of about 35 ordinary citizens every day on planes. Rather than flying on routes that are deemed high risk, air marshals are being assigned flights just to follow people. Every single move these passengers make is being documented, and they don’t even know it.
According to the internal bulletin, air marshals are following passengers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base,” and the goal of the program is described as preventing risks “posed by unknown or partially known terrorists.”
When someone is on the Quiet Skies list, a team of air marshals will be put on their flight, and the air marshals will receive a file with a photo and basic information about them, and then will be given a list they have to complete. The air marshals have to note whether the passenger uses the lavatory, if they engaged in conversation with others, if they texted, if they stopped while in transit through the airport, and much more.
It appears like many air marshals are uncomfortable with this concept. For example:
In late May, an air marshal complained to colleagues about having just surveilled a working Southwest Airlines flight attendant as part of a Quiet Skies mission. “Cannot make this up,” the air marshal wrote in a message.
One colleague replied: “jeez we need to have an easy way to document this nonsense. Congress needs to know that it’s gone from bad to worse.”
One air marshal described an assignment to conduct a Quiet Skies mission on a young executive from a major company.
“Her crime apparently was she flew to Turkey in the past,” the air marshal said, noting that many international companies have executives travel through Turkey.
The president of the Air Marshal Association has also spoken out against this, noting that this is a waste of time, and that resources could be better spent in other ways:
“The Air Marshal Association believes that missions based on recognized intelligence, or in support of ongoing federal investigations, is the proper criteria for flight scheduling. Currently the Quiet Skies program does not meet the criteria we find acceptable.
The American public would be better served if these [air marshals] were instead assigned to airport screening and check in areas so that active shooter events can be swiftly ended, and violations of federal crimes can be properly and consistently addressed.”